Gov. Kim Reynolds’ one-size-fits-all plan to reopen Iowa’s public schools during an infectious disease pandemic may soon be disrupted.
The statewide teacher’s union and Iowa’s fifth-largest school district are mounting a legal challenge to the Reynolds administration’s requirements for schools during the COIVD-19 crisis. The Iowa City School Board voted unanimously last week to join the Iowa State Education Association’s lawsuit.
The lawsuit hinges on the state’s interpretation of a 2020 law that was meant to give more school districts more flexibility in scheduling. We applaud educators and school board members for taking a stand against Reynolds’ ill-conceived plan, but we regret it had to come to this.
In July, leaders of the Iowa City Community School District opted to start the school year fully online, with the understanding that the coronavirus is not contained in Johnson County. Shortly thereafter, though, Reynolds announced all schools would be required to conduct at least half of instruction in person.
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Iowa City leaders have argued they face unique challenges compared to other school districts. Some 30,000 University of Iowa students arriving this month could drastically increase infections in a short time, a worry that’s preliminarily borne out by grim testing figures for Johnson County this week.
Iowa City is unique, but so is each of the 325 other school districts in Iowa. Every school board is balancing its own local factors related not only to the virus’s spread, but also transportation, facilities, workforce and a long list of other concerns. It’s impossible for government bureaucrats in Des Moines to come up with a model or matrix that’s suitable for every corner of the state.
Frequently in recent years, intra-government battles over local control have been settled by the courts, rather than by the policymakers Iowans elect to make such decisions.
Both major political parties have fickle attitudes toward local control as a general principle, but it is Republicans — led by Reynolds and her predecessor, Terry Branstad — who have wielded the most control in state government for the past decade. They have consistently employed that power to diminish the authority of city councils, county boards of supervisors and school districts.
Reynolds is adamant that we’re not going back to the kind of statewide restrictions she briefly imposed at the onset of the pandemic in the United States this spring. But instead of replacing those blunt instruments with narrowly targeted measures to detect and contain local outbreaks, the governor has lifted statewide restrictions and replaced them with nothing.
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